Need an Afternoon Pick-Me-Up? Try a Nap


Napping. Some people love it, some hate it, while others claim to be bad at it. Whatever camp you fall into, the verdict (and research) is out—napping can be good for your body and brain … when done correctly.

Yes, there is a right and wrong way to take a nap. Neurologists and sleep specialists are changing the way we think of and go about taking an afternoon snooze. The general consensus: Nap for less than 30 minutes, don’t nap too late in the afternoon, and not all sleep is created equal. Daytime zzz’s don’t compare to the sleep we accumulate at night. In other words, you can’t nap your way out of sleep debt.

Catching up on a couple of hours of missed sleep over the weekend may help counteract the lack of sleep throughout the week in the interim. However, as renowned sleep specialist and author of “The Sleep Solution” (Berkley, April 2017), W. Chris Winter, M.D., will tell you, napping isn’t a viable long-term solution for making up lost sleep. In fact, the doctor reserves napping for efficient nighttime sleepers, not for those burning the candle at both ends, and he warns against it for those who struggle with any number of sleep issues.

The many benefits of napping


But if you’re getting enough sleep at night, napping responsibly has been shown to fight fatigue, increase mental alertness and improve cognitive function, such as memory and problem-solving, as well as boost mood, creativity and productivity. A midday power nap is like a reboot for your system, helping to relieve stress and lower tension (reducing the risk of heart disease) while recharging your energy—warding off burnout.

Unsurprisingly, there’s an increasing case for workplace naps with companies like Nike and Google providing designated napping areas for their employees. The Japanese even have a term for napping at work, inemuri, which translates as “sleeping while present.”

The napping dilemma


The two main issues with napping are sleep inertia (waking up feeling groggier, which Winter refers to as PNF, or post-nap funk) and nighttime sleep interference. Most experts agree that napping longer than 45 minutes or later than 3 p.m. can have negative consequences when it comes to falling and staying asleep at night.

In general, we humans tend to become naturally sleepy shortly after lunch, around 1 or 1:30 p.m.—the perfect time to take a nap, according to Winter. In fact, many sleep researchers believe that the afternoon urge to snooze is evolutionary and that we are designed to nap at this time (a widely held cultural belief, as well). However, naps diminish the drive to sleep at night. Snooze much later than 3 p.m. and your brain may not be interested in sleep at the appropriate time.

Matthew Walker, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science and author of the international best-seller “Why We Sleep” (Scribner, October 2017), says that while naps can benefit the body and brain, they’re also a double-edged sword. He explains that during waking hours, we build sleepiness, or sleep pressure, allowing us to quickly fall asleep at night and stay asleep. Napping, especially in the later afternoon, releases some of that sleep pressure, making it more difficult to fall asleep at bedtime.

The key to afternoon napping is to wake up with enough time for sleepiness to build back up. Winter also highly suggests a little post-nap sunshine and exercise to engage your brain. “Natural light is very important because it’s a big signal to your body to wake up after a night of sleep,” he notes. “If you don’t get that signal and then go back to bed, your sleep quality may suffer.”

Your brain on a nap


And if you sleep for too long—dipping into a state of deep sleep—you’re likely to wake up feeling fuzzy and dull with some serious post-nap funk. Sleep specialists strongly suggest sticking with a 20-minute “power nap,” giving you a relatively short mental boost without becoming groggy. Much longer than 30 minutes and your brain enters what’s called slow-wave sleep, which takes much longer to come out of, leaving you feeling less alert than before.

That said, there is a benefit to longer naps. Although harder to wake up from, 60-minute naps have been shown to improve memory and benefit learning. Nap longer than 60 minutes and your brain enters REM (rapid eye movement sleep), which has been shown to boost creativity, perceptual processing and associative thinking. Yet you’re most likely to feel groggy waking up from that stage.

However, nap for around 90 minutes and your brain will most likely have completed its first sleep cycle (from light stages of sleep, through deep sleep phases and back to the light stage). So if you have the luxury of time, giving yourself a full 90 minutes to nap (and giving yourself enough time to recover after) might be the way to go.

Nap responsibly


Winter, who advises sticking with short siestas, is also a big proponent of scheduled naps—not necessarily napping every day, but if you’re going to take an afternoon siesta, do so at the same time consistently. More important, set a definitive end time and wake up on schedule, regardless of how well you snoozed. He explains that the brain prefers to anticipate something rather than react to it, and naps are no different. Unscheduled siestas surprise the brain, curbing their effectiveness and making the tug into deep sleep hard to resist.

“When someone naps too long or naps in an erratic or unscheduled way, the brain can enter into deep sleep and not want to come out of it—because deep sleep is just that good! But waking up from this deep sleep feels awful,” Winter explains. “If the napper isn’t careful, the refreshment of a quick jaunt through light sleep will be replaced by a mind-numbing descent into deep sleep.”

How to nap responsibly:

  1. Schedule naps for the early afternoon.
  2. Nap less than 30 minutes, and set a definitive wake-up time (alarms help!).
  3. Only nap if you’re getting enough sleep at night and are in need of a little afternoon pick-me-up.

Video credit: 9wut, Getty Images
Photo credit: Roman Samborskyi, Shutterstock; El Nariz, Shutterstock; Jp valery, Unsplash; Stokkete, Shutterstock; fstop123, Getty Images